I am often asked to recommend books on astrobiology, habitable exoplanets, and extraterrestrial life.
There are many great books in these exciting fields, but there are a number of stand-outs that I highly recommend. Below is a gradually growing list of my favorite ones.
Is your favorite book missing? Add other book suggestions in the comments below!
A classic 1980 book by Carl Sagan. Although missing some of the new developments, this book remains an excellent treatise on life in the universe (and Earth).
Peter Ward and Don Brownlee
This is a classic book which provides an interesting overview of many key factors and problems that have made it difficult for complex life to evolve on Earth. Many of these factors apply to all habitable planets making, in the view of the authors, complex life extremely rare.
The “Rare Earth” hypothesis splits astrobiologists and it will take decades — if not centuries — until we will be able to decide if Ward and Brownlee are right. Nevertheless, the book provides a highly readable and interesting narrative of many exciting problems related to the development of simple and complex life.
Peter Ward is a Professor of Geosciences at the University of Washington, has led one of the NASA Astrobiology Institute nodes and an author of 16 popular science books.
Don Brownlee is a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington and the Principal Investigator of NASA’s Stardust mission.
How to Find a Habitable Planet
Princeton University Press, 2010
James Kasting is one of the pioneers of planetary habitability studies and in this book he provides an insider’s view on what makes a planet habitable and how can we find planets suitable for life.
The 5th Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life
Paul Davies’s book provides an exciting exploration of the possible origins of life, including the principles of biological systems.
Basic Books, 2009
Alan Boss’s book offers an enjoyable insider’s view on the birth of the exoplanet field: from the first radial velocity discoveries until the launch of the Kepler mission, Alan gives a diary-like summary of the major new exoplanet discoveries and results, including the controversies, debates, and the impact of politics and space policies on the science of exoplanets.
Alan P. Boss is an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial magnetism and an expert on extrasolar planets and the formation of planetary systems.
Biology / Paleontology
Life on a young planet
Princeton University Press, 2003
The book provides an interesting, in-depth, but very readable discussion of research on the earliest life on Earth and especially on microfossils. While the book does not focus on extraterrestrial life, the history of life on Earth is an absolutely fundamental part of astrobiology and this is a great introduction to it.
Copernicus Books, 2002
A somewhat older, but excellent book on the beginning of the era of exoplanet discovery and characterization. The book includes great interviews with many of the prominent scientists in the field and provides a great introduction to the initial discoveries of extrasolar planets.
Strange New Worlds
This book provides an exciting narrative of exoplanet exploration and discoveries, with clear explanation oft he techniques and peppered with anecdotes from the field.
Life in The Universe
J. Benneth, S. Shostak
A best-selling introduction to astrobiology, mainly aimed at non-science majors. This richly illustrated and entertaining textbook provides a well-balanced overview of how concepts from astronomy, planetary sciences, geosciences, and biology can be combined to search for life in and beyond the Solar System.
How to Build a Habitable Planet: The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind
Charles Langmuir and Wally Broecker
Princeton University Press, 2012
This well-written book follows Earth’s formation and evolution, including the overview of biological evolution. The book provides an interesting, geoscience perspective on these topics, which complements well most other books that approach the topic more from an astrophysics/planetary sciences perspective. Well suited for undergraduate courses.
Earth: Evolution of a Habitable World
Cambridge University Press, 2013
An excellent undergraduate introduction to the formation and evolution of Earth and to the processes that made and keep our planet habitable.
See my review of the this book in Meteoritics & Planetary Sciences.